* Socialist president had been unseen publicly since Nov. 15
* Arrival counters rumors he was in grave condition
* Typically theatrical arrival for unpredictable Chavez
CARACAS, Dec 7 (Reuters) - Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez
made a theatrical return from Cuba on Friday after medical
treatment, walking and joking in a first public appearance for
three weeks that quashed rumors he may have been at death's
"I'm happy and enthused to be back again," Chavez said after
flying in overnight to the delight of supporters.
"So, where's the party?" Chavez joked, in festive mood as he
chatted with ministers after walking unaided down the steps from
his plane at the international airport outside Caracas.
The 58-year-old socialist leader has had three cancer
operations in Cuba since mid-2011 and returned to Havana ten
days ago to receive "hyperbaric oxygenation" - a treatment
normally used to alleviate bone decay from radiation therapy.
But speculation was rife he may have suffered a recurrence
of the disease.
One local journalist said he was confined to a wheelchair.
Earlier this year, Chavez declared himself "completely
cured" and went on to comfortably win re-election in October.
Amid a barrage of rumors, officials had maintained his
latest trip to Cuba was just a scheduled follow-up to the
radiation therapy he underwent in the first half of 2012.
Supporters celebrated the return of the man who has
dominated the South American OPEC nation since he first won
election in 1998. He wore a multi-colored track suit and arrived
with relatives and aides including vice president Nicolas
"YEEESSSS!!!!," tweeted Eva Golinger, an American-Venezuelan
lawyer close to the Chavez government.
"Chavez is back and has shown up all the rumor-mongers,
necrophiliacs, gossips and ill-thinkers. Welcome commander."
On Friday, Cuba's Communist Party newspaper showed President
Raul Castro bidding farewell to Chavez at Havana airport.
Chavez's return gives him a week to campaign for Venezuela's
Dec. 16 state elections, where the ruling Socialist Party is
hoping to use the momentum of the presidential victory to win
back some opposition-held governorships.
The opposition, however, is hoping that discontent with
grassroots issues like crime, power-cuts and cronyism will
enable it to at least hold the seven states it controls out of
Speculation is unlikely to end over Chavez's health, given
the scant details given by the government.
Doctors say hyperbaric oxygenation is a treatment normally
given in different sessions over several months, meaning he
could return again to Cuba soon.
They also say nobody can declare themselves completely cured
of cancer until a couple of years have passed without a
The president had dearly wanted to attend the Mercosur trade
bloc summit in Brazil on Friday, to celebrate Venezuela's entry,
so his absence from that maintained a question mark over just
how well he is.
Opponents criticize Chavez for secrecy over his health and
preferring Cuban doctors to Venezuela.
He has chosen to be treated in Havana due to his friendship
with Cuba's past and present leaders Fidel and Raul Castro, plus
the discretion he is guaranteed thanks to the Communist
government's strict controls on information.